“Philadelphia used to have a lot of industry”: Farewell to the Girard Point (Tidewater) Grain Elevator

“Philadelphia used to have a lot of industry. Not so much anymore.” –Harry Hagin, site superintendent, Camden Iron and Metal, 12/19/07

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At 7AM on Sunday, demolition charges will echo throughout the refineries and tank farms of South Philadelphia as scrap dealers Camden Iron and Metal implode the headhouse of the last of Philadelphia’s great grain elevators, the Tidewater Grain Elevator at Girard Point. This will leave only the former Reading Company/Tidewater Company elevator at 20th and Shamokin St. to witness to the city’s history as a grain entrepot.

The reinforced concrete structure was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1914.  Since the elevator was built to withstand a catastrophic explosion of highly flammable grain dust, the remaining silos are especially solid and will be manually demolished with a wrecking ball.

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[GIRARD POINT ELEVATOR, FROM THE DESIGN OF MASONRY STRUCTURES AND FOUNDATIONS, CLEMENT CLARENCE WILLIAMS, 1922]

When the Tidewater Elevator comes down, Philadelphia will not only lose a vestige of its relatively short-lived history as a collection, storage, and distribution point for grain but also an austere piece of architectural history arguably of international significance. As architectural historian Reyner Banham has pointed out in his Concrete Atlantis, European architects like Le Corbusier and Gropius looked upon an American landscape littered with elevators, what “the monumental vernacular of the 20th century” and were smitten by the no-nonsense frankness of these structures’ precise geometrical forms. They looked fawningly upon the hosts of unappreciated American engineers, those clinical technicians, throwing up brash new structures (“forms in light”) in defiance of gravity, history, and the traditional patrons and critics of architecture. Corbusier’s adoration of grain elevators is manifest in his sterile geometrical City of Tomorrow, where pods for living soar stark and solitary above the treeline much like the Tidewater presided over low slung Philadelphia for most of the twentieth century. Like jazz and the Constitution, the reinforced concrete grain elevator was an American form that enjoyed international acclaim.

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There is little to add to Jessica Chiu’s well-researched piece on the Tidewater’s origins, its technical features, and the national economic trends in grain storage that caused its demise. Essentially, the technical advantage of the structure was its position in the urban tidewater: all the locational advantages of situating an elevator within well-developed rail and ship transportation systems. As early as 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad saw the value of the ground at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and constructed a wooden elevator at Girard Point. With South Philadelphia undeveloped for most of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the PRR could easily cast its tracks directly to its tidewater facility. The coupling of the tidewater site to the PRR’s extensive national system meant that the Girard Point Elevator could temporarily offset the advantages of the new midwest grain centers of Buffalo and Minneapolis. In 1922 a solid train of 50 cars of wheat arrived from Buffalo in 27 hours, setting a new speed record for grain. While the midwest became the new national distribution node for grain, the reasons why the Girard Point/Tidewater failed to function as an international export point have yet to be explored.

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[US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, PORT OF PHILADELPHIA, CAMDEN, AND GLOUCESTER, 1938]

When the Tidewater Grain Company purchased the elevator from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1965 for $750,000, Tidewater could hardly have been considered a sucker. While grain transport and export was no longer a core function of the PRR, this did not mean that Philadelphia was not an advantageous export site. The Reading Railroad still maintained their elevator at Port Richmond and according to Chiu, Tidewater — with the assistance of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation — was able to update its grain handling mechanisms and unload 1.1 million bushels in a single day. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s Lower Schuylkill Waterfront District Plan of 1981 showed a city eager to reach out to a Tidewater Grain Company struggling in a “highly competitive grain export industry.” The PCPC optimistically noted that the company had “increased its grain exports from 350,000 tons in 1969 to 2 million in 1981,” in addition to recently purchasing “1,100 rail cars, two over-the-road switching engine, and eleven miles of track from Conrail.” Emboldened by Tidewater’s export numbers and its aggressive cost cutting in grain transfer operations, the PCPC recommended the deepening of the Schuylkill River from thirty-three to thirty-seven feet to open the complex’s two piers to forty foot draft ships, “the industry standard.”

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[PHILADELPHIA CITY PLANNING COMMISSION, LOWER SCHUYLKILL WATERFRONT DISTRICT PLAN,1981, P.71]

In 2004, the  long-defunct grain elevator’s proximity to I-95 appeared to offer the prospect of salvation. In April of that year, the much-missed Philadelphia Independent reported that a deal was afoot to use the Tidewater as a massive billboard, to adapt a once-useful machine to the new Disneyfied postindustrial economy that seeks to market Philadelphia’s glut of planar surfaces. In this imagined role, the Tidewater’s would still be in the transportation and distribution businesses; yet this time it would broadcast its infinite stream of images to motorists. Pausing never to stop, never requiring refilling, the structure’s blank exterior would trump the elevator’s inner world of bins, hoppers, ladders, and chutes.  The shell would become more useful than the inner workings — a pointed interrogation of our notion that buildings’ interiority contain their utility. And instead of a thing signifying the torurous knot of labor, economics, technology, deindustrialization: it would become a Learning-from-Las Vegas-scaled Frankenstein. This fate, however, did not befall the Tidewater. Fast forwarding to now, Harry Hagin and Camden Iron and Metal again grasp the geographical advantages of the tidewater. The scrap reclamation firm wants to consolidate its various Jersey-side yards at the site, install a huge scrap maw, and use the piers to ship the rest of the residue of America’s industrial past to international buyers.

More photos of Tidewater
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15 thoughts on ““Philadelphia used to have a lot of industry”: Farewell to the Girard Point (Tidewater) Grain Elevator

  1. i am looking for information on a grannary explosion at a tidewater location near 31st & market street. iworked at 32nd street for the PRR
    at the time but i don’t know the date.

  2. Hi Richard Wolstenholme – Hope you check back here from time to time – “Joe” has the date correctly, it was indeed March 28 ’56. I know, for my late dad was, at the time, Director of Physical Plant at Drexel (then Institute, now University). My mom, dad and I were in NYC for a family vacation and he was called back at midnight right after the explosion (I believe Dr. Creese himself made the call). We were all ready for bed at the hotel, and had to rush to the train station for a special train back to 30th Street – a cab was called to take mom & I back home while Dad spent pretty much the next two to three days at the site (due to the extensive damage done to Drexel buildings), working with city depts., fire, Red Cross, building inspectors, etc. I still have the complete media coverage from the Inquirer and Bulletin of the event with pictures, all kept in a scrapbook of Drexel-related physical plant growth and incidents. Do contact me!

    1. Hello Sandra Martin. I was walking on the Market Street Bridge heading to Center City when that beastie blew. I have been writing up life events and this is one I have been trying to find photos to illustrate the aftermath. Can you help. I have found only one bit of text by Lori Hedges but no pictures. Cheers

    2. If anyone can help me to locate documentation and photos for the explosion on March 28, 1956, I would greatly appreciate it. My grandfather Vyron Whilden died in that explosion when my dad was only 2 years old. He does not know much about his father, and I would like to acquire as much information about this event as possible to give to him. Thank you in advance for any and all information available.

      1. On the nite of march 28th,1956,Spy Wednesday,I was 13 years old and residing at 612 N. Preston Street in West Phila. At approx. 6:30 pm myself along with 3 of my school chums snuck in thru an unlocked door at the Tidewater Grain Co and as we had done several times in the past went to the top floor and slid down the long winding metal chute to the bottom floor. It was like being on a ride in an amusement park. After about 25 minutes or so I guess we made too much noise and attracted the security guards attention who promptly chased after us and we escaped to the street and split up, fearing the cops would be looking for 4 kids in the area. I went to my house and my mom had me sit at the dining room table and do my homework, even though we were off from school until the following Monday. I attended a catholic school, St Agatha at 38th Spring Garden. At approx 8:00 pm a large boom occurred and windows of houses on Preston Street were shattered. Then we immediately heard the fire engines from 40th Haverford leave the station with sirens blasting. My mom and I went outside, saw people running towards 40th Lancaster. SWe followed the crowd, reached Lancaster ave looked down towards center city and saw flames and smoke high in the air, the sky was on fire. We walked towards the flames all the while fire engines and police cars and the Red cross and the Salvation army vehicles were all racing past us. The sight we saw when we got near the armory near 32nd Market was unbelievable, so much damage and chaos. We stayed quite awhile until police finally disbursed the crowd. I recall it lasted most of 3 days till under control. It was a big story at that time. But what has stayed with me the most is this……had that security guard not chased us we no doubt would have been in the building when it exploded and I might not be here today to record this.

  3. Reblogged this on Our Grandfathers' Grain Elevators and commented:
    Here is a fascinating look at the life and death of the Tidewater Grain Elevator in Philadelphia. It is a well researched article, which our readers should enjoy. Particularly illuminating are the comments. This blog delves into industrial and architectural history from a refreshing perspective, and is well worth exploring.

  4. Does anyone have any info on the tidewater elevator explosion? Very interested in the subject and I’m having little luck finding info other than the bare basic facts. Anything would be much appreciated! Thanks. =)

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